To the outside observer, Salt Lake City might seem to be the squeaky-clean "City of Saints"its nickname since Mormon pioneers first arrived. Its wide roads, huge Mormon temple topped by a horn-blowing angel, and orderly neighborhoods give it the appearance of the ideal American city, but looks can be deceiving.
When a beautiful socialite turns up dead, Art Oveson, a twenty-something husband, father, and devout Mormon just getting his start as a sheriff's deputy, finds himself thrust into the role of detective. With his partner, a foul-mouthed former strikebreaker, he begins to pursue the murdereror murderers. His search takes him into the underbelly of Salt Lake City, a place rife with blackmail, corruption, and death.
Based on a true yet largely forgotten murder that once captivated the nation but still remains unsolved eighty years later, City of Saints reveals a darker picture of the Mormon capital than you ever expected.
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About the Author
ANDREW HUNT is a professor of history in Waterloo, Ontario. His areas of study include post-1945 U.S. History, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the American West. He has written reviews for The Globe and Mail and The National Post, authored two works of nonfiction, The Turning and David Dellinger, and is coauthor of The 1980s. He grew up in Salt Lake City and currently lives in Canada.
Read an Excerpt
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 1930
“It is enough. This is the right place.”
Brigham Young uttered those words when his wagon reached the mouth of Emigration Canyon and he gazed out at this valley. That was almost eighty-three years ago. July 24, 1847. We celebrate that date in Utah—Pioneer Day—with picnics, fireworks shipped in from China, and, to the extent that it can be called “revelry,” revelry. On this bitter cold winter’s morning, at half past seven, I stood on the opposite side of the valley and to the south of the vantage point the prophet enjoyed all those years ago. Maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word. When he first laid eyes on the Salt Lake Valley, Young was recovering from a bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or—as doctors now call it—tick typhus.
Closing my eyes to the icy wind cutting my face, I pictured Young, wasting away in the back of his covered wagon, arms and face splotched with rashes, plagued by headaches and muscle pain. If he came out of that canyon now, on this cold February morning in 1930, he’d see a different place than he saw in ’47: a city with wide roads, clanging streetcar bells, ten-story buildings, and a huge granite temple with a gold-plated angel on top, blowing his horn triumphantly.
That’s the north side of town. Out here, where I stood in snow up to my shins, the valley hadn’t changed much since the prophet’s arrival. Meadows everywhere, with a farm here and there, but mostly these were unused fields, home to clusters of box elders and pines. Deputy Lund and I drove to this spot following an early-morning call to my home from the weekend dispatcher. I asked her to contact the coroner before heading out. It had snowed the night before, so our Model A county car struggled to get out here.
The gangly deputy pacing in the snowy clearing—auburn hair, high cheekbones, long neck—that was me, dressed in regulation cream felt Stetson, leather jacket with green deputy’s shirt underneath, khakis, and black patent leather shoes that do a bad job of keeping snow out.
My confusion came from being green. I had been doing this a mere eight months up till that morning. Despite that, dead bodies were nothing new to me. I had encountered my share since starting this job. I had hauled corpses out of collapsed mines, dislodged them from the interior of crunched automobiles, and served as a stretcher-bearer for a body found at the bottom of a canyon. He was eighteen—poor lad—and not sufficiently experienced to take on such a steep climb.
But murder victims? This lady was my first, and a baptism by fire she was. The fabric of her dress—torn to shreds—still hung on her battered body. Her skin was split open in at least thirty places, and broken bones jutted out of some of them. Splattered blood in the snow resembled rose petals sprinkled on a white wedding cake. Squatting near her, I lifted her skull high enough to see it was smashed and one of her eyes was missing.
Not even a seasoned lawman should have to behold such a sight, I thought.
More questions galloped circles in my mind. How old was she? Was she from around here or passing through? Why did the last person she ever encountered in her life hate her enough to do this?
Such questions would drive me crazy if I let them. My attention shifted to lesser concerns, like feeling irked for having to work on a Saturday. No choice, though—I was the low man on the totem pole. So it stood to reason I would have to be there, shivering and spotting those little details: bits of brain in her hair; bone jutting out of her thigh covered with snow; her torn stockings, light brown, held up by garters.
I didn’t need a professional with a degree from Johns Hopkins to tell me this was no accident. The killer had it in for this woman. Her mangled remains spoke volumes, and I’d grown weary of standing in that place, trying to make sense out of something senseless in that bitter cold. My hands had gone numb from the cold, and I exhaled steam. Despite the freezing weather, the seagulls circled in full force, crying and diving.
“ID’d the stiff yet?” asked Roscoe Lund, my partner.
He said it in a taunting way, as only he could, as if to rub it in that I hadn’t identified her yet. He sat on the Ford’s running board, dressed in a deputy’s outfit that matched mine. No taller than me, Roscoe was twice as thick, owing primarily to muscle. He kept his Stetson tilted far back on his bristly head, and his perpetual five o’clock shadow hardened his appearance. He had a bulbous nose, not as bad as W. C. Fields, but getting there, and the indentations on it gave me reason to believe it had been broken. His deep voice, wide shoulders, cleft chin, and short neck gave him a giantlike quality—as if he had climbed down the beanstalk and, instead of chasing Jack on the ground, run straight to the sheriff’s office to apply for the deputy vacancy.
I continued squatting by the woman’s remains, turning halfway so I could see him out of the corner of my eye. “I’ll let the coroner have at it.”
Roscoe picked odd times to smile. Like now, for instance. “Not so much as a driver’s license, huh?”
“Nope, but I don’t want to move her before Livsey gets here. I’m sure he’ll give her a good going-over.” Livsey was Tom Livsey, deputy county coroner.
“Who do you suppose she is?”
“I don’t know.” I reached out and hooked my index finger over a string of pearls wrapped around her busted neck and gave them a wiggle. A few were spotted with blood. “I’m guessing she’s loaded. Or she’s married to someone who is.”
Roscoe popped a lid off a can of smoking tobacco and sprinkled a line on cigarette paper. He licked the edge and rolled it, put the end between his lips, flipped open a lighter. The flame danced, and the cigarette tip crackled orange as he inhaled. He doesn’t care about this dead woman. He just wants to wrap this up and go home and go back to sleep, I thought as I eyed him puffing.
Roscoe had never told me where he lived. He had complained about having to get up at 6:00 A.M. on a Saturday but did not mention a wife or any other family. The only fragments I knew came from rare hints he dropped. He offered no clues about his age. I guessed him to be in his late thirties. He once let it slip that he served in the American Expeditionary Force and fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood near the Marne back in June of ’18. That was the most he ever said about himself, and even then, he was spare with the details. He also made a fleeting reference to almost dying of influenza after returning to the States, but he obviously recovered.
That was all I knew about Roscoe Lund. Oh, and one other thing: He made it a point to say, often, “Goddamn Mormons” or “Mormon sonsabitches—hate ’em all.” He would glare at me each time, knowing full well that I had been a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He didn’t go on the warpath today, though. He stayed focused. In this case, focused for him meant saying—over and over—how much he hated being out here so early on a Saturday morning. I went over to the car, to where he sat smoking, opened the back door, and snatched a folding plate camera off the backseat, expanding it like an accordion.
“Got a yen for snappin’ pretty scenery, have we?”
I glanced at the overcast sky. “It’s supposed to snow more.”
I went back to the spot and began snapping photos of tire tracks. They were everywhere—crisscrossing north, south, east, west, and all points in between—and they all led to the same place: the corpse.
“How many times you figure she was hit?”
“I count at least five separate sweeps in this direction.”
“Five?” echoed Roscoe, flipping his cigarette into the snow.
“Yep,” I said, holding the camera to one side and gesturing to each pair of tracks. “One … two … three … four … five … possibly a sixth set over here. Maybe a seventh. I can’t be sure.” I pointed to a piece of bloody white fur near the victim. “I’m guessing that’s her ermine, and there’s a high-heel shoe over there in the snow.”
“Christ almighty,” he said, shaking his head. “Who’d wanna hit a broad that many times? Once probably would’ve done the trick.”
“Do you mind?” I asked, not looking up from the viewfinder. “Lady or woman. Not broad.”
Roscoe laughed. “I don’t think she cares.”
“Yeah? Well, I care.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. The choirboy has a thing for damsels.”
More viewfinder scenes: tire tracks heading from northeast, crossing over the body, and continuing southwest toward the road. Snap. Turn crank, advance film.
“I could use some help,” I said, lowering the camera.
“Hey, I won’t lift a pinky to do Cannon’s shit work—not while that fucker is out glad-handing and kissing babies to get reelected. Hell, he’s not even doing that right now; he’s getting his beauty sleep while we’re out here working our asses off in the freezing cold.”
Now I was the one laughing, prompting a glare from Roscoe. “I don’t see what’s so goddamn funny.”
I checked the camera to see how many snapshots remained. “Something tells me when your time comes to keel over, the cause of death won’t be listed as work-related exhaustion.”
“Keep it up, choirboy. You’ll be writing gags for Amos and Andy in no time flat.”
I walked to the corpse and tapped the small of her back with the tip of my shoe. “Just a vessel.”
“What’d you say?” asked Roscoe.
The wind whistled through the pines. Snow started falling.
“Speak up!” he said. “What’d you say?”
“Bullshit. You’re talking to yourself again.”
A Pontiac pulled up and parked at the bottom of the hill, and deputy county coroner Tom Livsey got out of the car and started up the icy path, dressed in a bowler and topcoat, carrying a briefcase full of equipment. I watched him approaching while I returned the camera to the trunk of the car. Tom grew up a stretch down the road from my childhood house in American Fork, so a certain familiarity existed between us. He had a reputation for professionalism and an eye for detail, and he did most of the hard work behind the scenes while his boss, coroner Laird Nash, merrily took all the credit. When Tom reached the murder scene, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, but he and Roscoe didn’t acknowledge each other.
Tom crouched near the body and lifted a torn piece of her dress with the tip of his pencil. “Who called it in?”
“Virgil Porter,” I said. “He lives in that shack over there.” I pointed to the top of the hill, at a whitewashed box with a steep-sloped roof. A smoke column curled up from the chimney, and a flatbed truck was parked out front. “He found her body when he got home from work this morning. That was about five, uh, five fifteen or so.”
Livsey squinted at the house. “I’m surprised his wife didn’t hear anything.”
“He lives alone.”
“Oh. I see. Did you get a statement from him?”
“Yep,” I said, plucking a spiral notebook out of my pocket. “It’s all right here. Says he saw a dark object in the snow at the base of the hill, along with some kind of animal—maybe a coyote. He lit a kerosene lantern and came down here, and this is what he found.”
“What was his demeanor like, Art?”
“He was visibly upset. Hands shaking.”
“I think he shit his skivvies,” said Roscoe.
Roscoe’s foul language offended Livsey’s Mormon sensibilities. He couldn’t help making an angry face at my partner. “Find any identification on her?”
Livsey stayed low, examining the body for another minute before standing up straight. “Jane Doe. We don’t get enough of those.” He looked at us. “I can take it from here, fellas. The morgue wagon is on its way. Thanks for your hard work, Art.”
Heading back to the county car, I overheard Roscoe mumble—under his breath, but still audible—“Fuckin’ prick.” I opened the driver’s side door and raised my foot to the running board when I spotted a familiar black sedan with gold stars painted on white front doors. The car halted about twenty yards away, and two men in fedoras and suits got out and began walking toward us. I recognized them instantly as plainclothes Salt Lake City police homicide detectives. The Salt Lake City law enforcement community is small. Most of us know each other by name. Sometimes, thanks to an active gossip mill, we know more about each other than that.
Detective Buddy Hawkins, a redhead, likely in his midthirties (though I’d never asked him his exact age), with fair skin and a prominent chin, had style, no two ways about that. This morning, he had dressed up in one of his fancy double-breasted worsted suits, with a crisp white shirt and red-and-blue-striped tie, and a dark fedora pushed far back on his head. He and I attended the same church, and from time to time we’d strike up a chat after priesthood meetings. Behind him tailed his hatchet-faced partner, Detective DeWitt “Wit” Dunaway, a frumpier dresser, big-eared, hat pulled low. His tie was crooked and poorly tied, and I never knew his disposition to be anything other than sour. They stepped through snow in our direction, and Roscoe muttered something about “those sonsabitches.” Unlike Hawkins, who was born and raised in small-town Heber, Utah, Wit hailed from out of state. His previous job had been in Boston, where—according to rumors—he was one of the ringleaders in the big 1919 police strike out there. He lost his job because of it and somehow ended up here, on the other side of the country, investigating homicides, pushing pencils, and cursing his fate.
I lowered my foot off the running board and faced the police detectives.
“Morning, gents,” I said.
“Where’s the body?” asked Wit. He didn’t say it so much as he snarled it.
“In that clearing over there,” I said, pointing where we’d been. “Tom Livsey is having a look at her before the morgue wagon—”
Roscoe cut me off. “You boys are outside the city limits. Which means you’re outside of your jurisdiction.”
“We’ve reason to believe the victim’s from Salt Lake,” said Buddy. “So, technically, this case falls under our jurisdiction.”
“We couldn’t find any ID on her,” I said. “Do you know who she is?”
Buddy removed his hat and held it by the brim. “We’re not at liberty to say, until our information has been confirmed by the coroner and the next of kin has been notified. Leaving so soon?”
“We’ve been here a while,” I said. “I’ve got to write a report before I head home.”
He tipped his head back to see the sky, and snowflakes dabbed his face. “Lonely place to meet one’s end, the Pole Line Road. Experience has taught me that in most cases, the more isolated the spot, the more heinous the crime.” He leveled his head at me. “Is that so here?”
“She’s mangled, something terrible,” I said. “She got hit by a car. Repeatedly.”
Buddy nodded. “Do you mind sending me a photostat of your report?”
Roscoe winced. “Dig up your own shit, lazy bastards.”
He grinned at Roscoe, then at me, and put his hat back on. “Don’t let us hold you up any longer, fellows. See you at church tomorrow, Art.”
“Sure thing, Buddy.”
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Hunt